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British Empire and the Atlantic World


In 1754 tensions between British and French colonies in North America had reached a breaking point. These colonies lay in defined, neighboring patterns: the British in a coastal arc from Georgia to what would become Maine, France in the bordering territory from the St. Lawrence River down to what became the state of Louisiana. While it can be said that the immensity of the continent should have led to the realization that there was enough land and potential for all, the continent's great size paradoxically also meant that each side wanted this unrealized potential all to itself. In the summer of 1754, a British fort at the headwaters of the Ohio River was demolished by French troops, who promptly rebuilt it and named it Fort Duquesne in honor of the governor of French Quebec.

french and indian war

The combination of French armed forces with Indian assistance threatened the British colonies, particularly at the edges, so an impassioned plea was made to the royal government by representatives of seven colonies at a conference in Albany, New York, in 1754. Faced with the loss of prestige within its empire, as well as the possible loss of its interests in North America, Britain responded with troops and preparations for war.

For Britain, the war in North America was a disaster until 1757, when the royal government appealed to the colonial assemblies for further assistance with the promise of increased spending and generous reimbursement for assistance. The necessity of reversing the direction of the war forced the British government into a much more cooperative policy. Military spending increased hurriedly, and the increased funding and the nimble strategy of William Pitt the Elder, the new prime minister, turned the tide. By 1759 the British had scored substantial Atlantic victories from Canada to the Caribbean islands. Subsequent victories proved to Britain that cooperation with the colonies was to their advantage, though at a high price—a debt that Britain would spend decades trying to pay off, with the colonies used as an increasing source of funds.

britain's new policy: the reasons

The decade after 1754 saw Britain make significant changes in relations with its Atlantic possessions; moving from a hands-off policy to a much greater and active supervision. In addition to the British debt, the accession to the throne of George III in 1760 and the Paris Treaty of 1763 were also major reasons for the changing British attitude. The "king-in-Parliament" was determined to manage the empire personally and more closely than before, as evidenced by his dissatisfaction with and replacement of a series of prime ministers and administrations, none of which appeared to satisfy him. The rapid turnover of administrations meant that more responsibility fell to senior bureaucrats, who tightened control over colonial affairs. Legally, the colonies were chartered, protected bodies subject to control by the crown, but in the early eighteenth century, the empire was content to let the colonies fend for themselves with little interference. Thanks to the Hanoverians and the stretched imperial economy, uniformity and consolidation of control soon became the focus of colonial policy.

The colonies were becoming both an increasing source of revenue and a corresponding drain on imperial finances. From 1747 to 1765, the value of colonial exports to Britain doubled from about £700,000 to £1.5 million, and the value of imports also doubled, from £900,000 to £2.0 million. Exports from Britain to its various outposts were rising at a staggering amount as well: between 1750 and 1772, the tonnage of exports from British ports nearly doubled. The population of British North America doubled also from 1750 to 1770, from approximately one million to two million. In 1700 the American population was one-twentieth of Britain's and Ireland's combined; in 1770 it was one-fifth.

From its beginnings, the foundation of the British Empire lay in mercantilism, a system designed to gain imperial and political strength from trade and commerce. Mercantile theory held that the wealth of a nation is found in its supply of precious metals (thus justifying the empire's firm grasp on the minting of coin in its colonies) as well as from a favorable balance of trade. The prevailing attitude among Britons was that America existed merely for the economic benefit of Britain, and they claimed that the benefit would increase if private investors and tradesmen were left to their own devices. Sir Walter Raleigh's words from two centuries earlier still held the day: "Whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself." Small wonder that economic expansion was called "the only justifiable Reason that can be given … of making Settlements and planting Colonies" by Sir William Keith, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania from 1717 to 1726, who later was one of the very first administrators to suggest the idea of a stamp tax on the colonies.

a change in colonial policy

In 1763 the British Parliament changed its philosophy; from now on, regulations regarding North American trade would be imposed not just to regulate colonial commerce, but also to keep the trade solely in the hands of the British, protecting a significant source of revenue for the empire, which in turn could be used for its increasingly costly defense.

The change took the form of a series of increasingly strict and unwelcome statutes. The Proclamation Act of 1763 forbade North American expansion westward past a rough line drawn approximately along the Appalachian Mountains. This law was odious to the colonists since the colonies were in danger of losing a great deal of potential western property, particularly the Virginia colony. (The fact that Nova Scotia and Georgia were expanded by the act was of small consolation). The Sugar Act of 1764 extended and replaced the Molasses Act of 1733. More items would be taxed, and enforcement would be more vigorous. The Stamp Act of the following year was the final straw, pushing the colonies from resentment to active resistance, and later rebellion. All colonial documents, including legal forms, official proclamations, and even newspapers, had to be stamped. Also, a fee had to be paid to collectors, who were not under the control of the colonial governor and therefore prone to committing abuses and fraud.

The various revenue acts also led to greater British organizational control, including the creation in 1767 of the American Board of Customs Commissioners, responsible for strict enforcement and collection. Disputes brought to the board were almost exclusively resolved in favor of the British government. Vice admiralty courts claimed to prosecute vigorously smugglers but were widely corrupt—customs officials falsely accused ship owners of possessing undeclared items, thereby seizing the cargoes of entire vessels, and justices of the juryless courts were entitled to a percentage of the goods from colonial ships that they ruled unlawful. Writs of assistance and blanket search warrants to search for smuggled goods were liberally abused. John Hancock, the wealthy New England merchant, had his ship Liberty seized in 1768 on a false charge, incensing the colonists. Charges against Hancock were later dropped and his ship returned because of the fear that he would appeal to more scrupulous customs officials in Britain.

Britain's desire for increased colonial control mirrored the realization that the Atlantic Ocean was becoming more than a barrier to be crossed—it represented a complex new system of interaction, over which Britain desired control for itself. The creation of the African slave trade a century earlier had established a triangular Atlantic network, through which trade in raw materials (such as timber, tar and tobacco), finished goods (such as the precious items traded to African tribal chiefs) and slaves surged. Portugal, Holland and France had also established similar trade systems, and these burgeoning Atlantic routes would shortly form a complete new "Atlantic World" dynamic that was essential to the survival of all Atlantic colonial enterprises.

turmoil in british politics

Stability of administration in the colonies was not enhanced by the extremely turbulent political climate at home. There were fifteen prime ministers between 1754 and 1783, with widely disparate measures of success. They included Thomas Pelham-Holles, the hypochondriac duke of Newcastle (1754–1756, 1757–1762), who resigned twice due to an incompetence that almost lost the war with France; John Stuart, earl of Bute (1762–1763), who served a mere eleven months, could not appear on the streets without a disguise, and was frequently burned in effigy while in office; and Frederick North, Lord North (1770–1782), who doggedly supported the oppressive policies of George III, even when faced with evidence of their failure, and therefore presided over the loss of the American colonies.

George Grenville, the prime minister from 1763 to 1765, provided the greatest spark to colonial tensions; in order to increase his popularity at home, he lowered taxes, shifting the burden to the colonies in the measures noted above. One of the rare capable administrations of this era was that of William Pitt the Elder (1757–1761, 1766–1768), who actively spoke out against colonial policy in America, realizing that the colonists were being pushed toward a breaking point.

colonial governors

The face of the British Empire in North America was represented by the royal governors, who were appointed by the crown to each royal colony; or, in the case of the proprietary or chartered colonies of New England, elected by the colonies themselves. The primary administrative responsibility of the British Empire in the Atlantic fell to the governors, who acted under royal prerogative and held wide-ranging if not always well-defined power. The royal prerogative of these governors meant that they had the same powers, and in some cases extensions of the powers, as held by the crown in Britain: the governor was captain-general (and vice admiral) of the provincial military forces; was empowered to appoint justices and establish courts as he saw fit; was authorized to make laws with the consent of the council and assembly; and had wide-ranging "minor" powers, such as granting pardons and appointments to ecclesiastical positions. The duties of governors in the proprietary colonies were much the same as the royal appointees, though they tended to act with more individual latitude, causing the crown (and other colonies) to argue for a uniform royal standard throughout North America.

Types of governors. Invested with broad powers, the governors of the eighteenth century unfortunately fell for the most part into two categories. One group comprised intelligent and ambitious men who desired to make something of themselves and eagerly sought colonial positions; many of them became corrupt, insensitive leaders. The other group was made up of those who could not succeed in Britain and were therefore shipped out as reward for loyalty to the crown, exiled away from their failings at home, or rewarded for their financial support—in all cases without the colonists' consent or with their best interests in mind.

By 1763, the colonies were divided into three groups, according to how they were governed: the seven "royal" colonies, in which the governor was appointed directly by the Crown, based on a recommendation from the Board of Trade; the "charter" colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, who chose their own governors; and the private or "proprietary" colonies—Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware—whose relationship with the crown was ill defined and often contentious. Thankfully, the unwieldy system of "personal unions," in which colonies were combined under the administration of a single governor, had been abandoned by then.

Ineffectiveness and corruption. Most governorships were patronage appointments, given to men like Francis Bernard, governor of New Jersey in 1758, and then Massachusetts from 1760 to 1769. A well-educated, unassuming man, he obtained the post by virtue of connections to the king through his uncle, and he pursued appointment in the colonies only to meet the financial needs of his ten children. "I am assured that I may depend on a quiet and easy administration. I shall have no points of government to dispute about … with a very pretty place to retire to." Bernard quickly found the demands of governorship to be much more difficult than he was able to handle, and he left his post to his successor, the unfortunate Thomas Hutchinson. Although he opposed the Stamp Act and was at first determinedly sympathetic to the colonies, Hutchinson nevertheless became the object of the hatred directed at the policies of George III and Parliament.

Abundant examples exist of the ineffectiveness of the royal governors and their administrations, though simple incompetence was not always the reason. The men sent to govern—profiteering administrators, with no head for understanding the political climate—were quite unfit to deal with the awakenings of political consciousness in the colonies. The British government was frustrated by the lack of talent on the ground, but the system of royal patronage appointments continued. Authority to grant land was vested in the governor on terms laid down in his instructions from the crown, but the crown's expectations for quick settlement and fair grants were frustrated by governors' efforts to subvert the system for their own gain. In contrast, the carefully constructed and executed land grant scheme of the British West Indies spurred development ahead of many of the North American colonies.

Corruption by colonial officers was not simply a matter of outright stealing from colonial treasuries, though there was certainly quite a lot of that. By 1765, according to one estimate, systematic smuggling, graft, extortion, and bribery in the colonies cost the British treasury some £750,000 per year. The deeper problem, however, was that colonial appointees largely viewed the purpose of their positions as being personal advancement, including the accumulation of personal wealth. Eliseus Burgess, who was appointed royal governor of Massachusetts in 1715 but remained in England, is said to have sold his governorship for £1,000. One-third of the seizures and forfeitures of vessels for violation of the seventeenth-century Navigation Acts went into the governor's personal coffers. And in Delaware, the property of persons dying intestate was granted to the governor. It is small wonder that to most colonial governors, the growth of the colonies and the freedom of their constituents ran a losing battle against personal gain.

The manner in which the governors were paid their salary varied among the individual colonies and was linked to the constant controversy over where the governor's allegiance should lie. Governors paid from the treasuries of the colonial assemblies, it was argued, should be accountable to the assemblies, not the government in Britain. Such was rarely the case, however.

Proprietary governors also struggled with their duty to their benefactors. Horatio Sharpe, governor of Maryland from 1755 to 1761, wrote of his frustration with this dual accountability: "If my hands had not been tied up by such Instructions as empty Coffers seem to have dictated I should many Months ago have had a Regiment of Maryland Troops under my Command and in all probability have been enabled to prevent any Incursions of Indians into this Province."

More governors than not were scorned and feared by the colonists. Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, royal governor of New Jersey from 1702 to 1708, treated his subjects, in the words of the New Jersey assembly, "not as Free-Men who were to be Governed by laws, but as Slaves, of whose Persons and Estates he had the sole power of disposing."

Rarely, but with increasing frequency in the eighteenth century, gubernatorial appointments were drawn from the colonists themselves, and in those cases, the results were, not surprisingly, to the benefit of the colony. Upon his appointment, the first royal governor of New Hampshire, Benning Went-worth, serving from 1741 to 1767, was greeted with enthusiasm by the colonial assembly as a governor whose "interests mixed with theirs." Wentworth, though, like other governors, was fiercely loyal to the crown, and he dismissed the assembly in 1765 for its protests against the Stamp Act.

There were examples of effective colonial leadership. William Burnet, governor at various times during the 1720s of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, was noted in particular for his conscientious and unselfish governance. However, the governorships and the powers invested in them allowed too much potential, in the eyes of the colonists, for corruption and manipulation, and the negative examples were seized upon as instances of the unfairness of British domination of the colonies.

denial of representation and rights

Regardless of the personality or suitability of the governor, in the eyes of the colonists the most repellent aspect of the imperial system was that they helped pay for the maintenance of the empire without corresponding representation. Britain responded with the argument that like the American colonists, "all British subjects are really in the same [condition]; none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament." This virtual, not actual, representation—accountability to Parliament, without any say in its policies or governance—caused the deepest colonial resentment.

Another source of contention in the colonies was the application of law. Were colonists governed by English law or could they adapt the legal system to their particular needs? Realizing the similarities of the situation in the Atlantic with that of Ireland, some in Parliament suggested that Poyning's Law (1494), which restricted the Irish Parliament from taking action on any law that was not approved by the English throne, be applied to the American colonies as well.

Most historians refer to the American Revolution as marking the end of the first British Empire, and it was royal attempts to consolidate and organize imperial power in the Atlantic that may have brought about this end. The inferiority of the men entrusted with governance contributed, but the overriding factor may simply have been the colonists' belief in British liberties and natural rights, a belief that the home government failed to recognize, with fatal consequences for their Atlantic empire.

See alsoConstitutionalism: American Colonies; French and Indian War, Battles and Diplomacy; French and Indian War, Consequences of; Imperial Rivalry in the Americas .


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Doug Krehbiel

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